Destroyer of Worlds

Film Review by Theresa Meerwarth

Just a few days after the anniversary of the Trinity Test, the first ever explosion of an atomic weapon, Christopher Nolan’s star-studded Hollywood movie Oppenheimer was released in cinemas. The film combines elements of biopic, spy movie and Cold War thriller, and explores the trajectory of the “father of the atomic bomb”, Julius Robert Oppenheimer. 

Film scence from Oppenheimer

In order to create separate perspectives, the film is narrated along two storylines. “Fusion”, filmed in black and white, follows the antagonist Lewis Strauss played by Robert Downey Jr. “Fission”, shot in color, centers around the hearing that ends up with the suspension of Oppenheimer’s security clearance and tracks Oppenheimer’s earlier career in physics until he, as director of the Los Alamos laboratories, becomes the leading scientist to build the atomic bomb. 

Oppenheimer’s story climaxes in the Trinity Test, the first detonation of an atomic weapon. Observing the audience’s reactions while watching Oppenheimer in the movie theater was very telling of the cinematography; viewers were riveted to their seats and shared in the excitement of Oppenheimer’s fellow scientists as Nolan managed to mesmerize his audience with anxiety inducing visual effects. The epic cinematography of the explosion scene exemplifies the use of an aesthetic of the “nuclear sublime”: It leaves the audience with a mixture of awe and horror and invokes a particular fascination with the bomb and admiration for the responsible scientists. Tension is also effectively created by the film’s soundtrack and other epic audio-effects: The overwhelming noise of the explosion is followed by a long silence during which one only hears the sound of excited, pulsating heartbeats and then, finally, Cillian Murphy’s Oppenheimer repeats the now infamous quote of the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds”. In keeping with this quote, the film invokes apocalyptic imaginaries of extinction. Mankind – with an emphasis on man – has now created a weapon deadly enough to destroy the human species itself. 

Watching Oppenheimer through a critical lens, the omissions and misrepresentations are more interesting than the plot itself: While all efforts are made to achieve an authentic portrayal of historic dates, places and the science behind the process of building the atomic bomb, the film pays no attention to the representation of the accomplished female scientists working within the Manhattan Project and shows other female characters through Oppenheimer’s male gaze as hysterical drunks, objects of his desire or almost invisible helpers. The advances in uranium mining are symbolized through miraculously appearing marbles that are repeatedly filled in a glass bowl, a misrepresentation that shows a total disregard of the history of uranium mining in Africa. Furthermore, the film is oblivious to the colonizing practices of the Manhattan Project and consequently erases the story of indigenous peoples from the plot, like the Navajo Nation. The production of the first atomic bombs has left Navajo territories contaminated and their communities faced with high levels of health damages, a legacy of the Manhattan Project the film doesn’t show. In addition to this omission, the cinematography serves to repeat the colonial trope of terra nullius, “unoccupied land”, depicting the home of first nations annexed for the laboratories as wide and empty landscape in “the middle of nowhere”. 

Scene from the film Oppenheimer
Scene from the film Oppenheimer

Finally, the film covers the moral discourse around the decision to attack Japan, Oppenheimer’s opposition to the hydrogen bomb and his efforts to promote nuclear arms control after the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the moral complexities are not explored to an appropriate extent. Neither is the complicated relation between science and politics and the role of the military-industrial-complex given its due attention. Placing a focus on Oppenheimer’s guilty conscience in the last third of the film, Nolan inspires sympathy with his hero rather than making a powerful point on the ethical ambiguities of scientific achievements and personal responsibility – complexities that resonate with many current moral questions.

The film is adapted from the Pulitzer Prize winning biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. Nolan, too, plays with the ancient Greek myth of Prometheus as the opening caption of the film summarizes: “Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. For this, he was chained to a rock and tortured for eternity”. 

In Greek mythology, humans are punished for Prometheus’ actions through the figure of Pandora, who carries a box of miseries that she lets escape into the world. The film implies that by inaugurating the nuclear age, the work of the “American Prometheus” had far-ranging impact for humankind. Unfortunately, it omits the aftermath of Oppenheimer’s legacy, now that Pandora’s box is opened.